Randall Wood posted an interesting essay last week on the different types of readers and their importance to traditional publishing. I recommend reading both his post and the commentary on The Passive Voice. Basically, there are three different types of readers: the Voracious Reader, who is the least common reader but reads the most books (and the widest variety of books) and spends the most per person on books; the Casual Reader, who reads less than twelve books a year and sticks to best-sellers; and the Social Reader, who only reads a book when it becomes the "it" book of the moment.
So, which group do you think is most valuable to publishers? You'd think it'd be the Voracious Reader, right? Tragically, that's wrong. Traditional publishers want the Casual and Social Readers because they're the biggest group of readers out there, and they're the ones who turn books into blockbusters. Even though Voracious Readers like myself spend the most money on books, we need more variety than the traditional publishers are willing to give us. (Publishers make more money off of a book that sells lots of copies than several books that sell only a few copies each.) This explains a lot about the way traditional publishers and bookstores do business, but it also shows that indie authors who can provide a variety of quality books directly to voracious readers will do well in the current marketplace. Voracious readers are willing to read unknown authors, and once they find an author they like, they're snatch up her backlist.
Is there a way for indie authors to use this knowledge to their advantage? Well, part of the reason I write is to create the type of books that I want to read, even if they're stories geared more toward the voracious readers' need for variety and originality instead of something that might cater to the casual/social reader. (Perhaps that's the real reason publishers reject some good writers.) Since voracious readers spend a lot on books, they might be most interested in free/bargain books and use e-mail lists and other services to discover them. If one wants to appeal to a larger audience, then it makes sense to read the books that they enjoy and try to figure out what makes them attractive to casual and social readers. Voracious readers can help their favorite authors and books by introducing them to Casual Readers. (Social Readers might need more convincing.) One of the points Hugh Howey and J.A. Konrath talk about is the need to increase the number of readers (and possibly convince the Casual and Social Readers to read more than a handful of books every year). With indie authors providing a greater variety of books, Casual and Social Readers might find some reading niches they really enjoy--once they try them.
I don't think this knowledge provides a magic shortcut to marketing. (Not that I'm anywhere close to being an expert on marketing.) I think the formula for success is still the same: write a lot of good books. But I do think that indie publishing offers benefits for both writers and heavy readers. I think it's also important to figure out how the reading population changes over time. How long will paper books be popular, and who buys them? (Maybe Casual/Social Readers who don't use e-readers buy more paper books than Voracious Readers.) Will people shift in the amount of reading that they do compared to other leisure activities? If Barnes and Noble eventually goes out of business, how will independent bookstores fare, and how will this affect the ability of traditional publishing to obtain the bestsellers and blockbusters they need to make a profit? Indie authors are not dependent on publishers and bookstores, but it's still useful to monitor what they're doing in case we need to change our own strategies for reaching readers.